We are all banner blind, or are we?
I was assigned to lead research and development project of ideating a new ad format. I reported directly to CPO and worked closely with key engineering and product management stakeholders responsible for ad delivery.
Banner click-through rate dropped below 1% long time ago. The internal joke became that digital ads are becoming like desperate men: aggressive, pushy, and annoying. But if people truly hate ads so much, why is YouTube filled with Super Bowl and hall of fame ads with millions of views each? When ads are watched on demand they are no longer ads. They are content.
The same applies to printed magazines. The only still profitable ones are those that successfully work with brands to transform ads into content. How? With carefully selected placements, high production quality, and artful communication. The glossy pages we all like to flip through in waiting rooms and airports.
These insights led to strategic hypothesis:
- People don’t hate ads, they hate garbage ads
- Banner blindness is a consequence of intrusiveness — if ads were less annoying they would get noticed
- To get you need to give — improving ad UX and production value would increase audiences’ perceived quality and change attitudes
How do you know if you are annoying? Can we reliably gauge it or at least get a feel for general audiences reactions? I instigated a UX study and designed an experiment for measuring user tolerance to visual intrusiveness of ads carried out by an independent eye-tracking research company.
We run a split test of individual user sessions within a controlled device-media environment. Users freely interacted with the same news publisher website, using the same smartphone, tablets, and laptop devices, but they were exposed to different types of ad experiences. All for the same brand and product, but with varying intensity of imagery that ranged from a static photo, cinemagraph photo, sequence of images, and video footage.
Ads are definitely seen. Especially on mobile devices where it’s virtually impossible not to notice them due to big ad-to-screen ratio. On mobile devices cinemagraph ad type sustained audience’s gaze the longest and on the laptop it was image sequence. What seems to work best is the golden middle: motion in moderation.
Ideation of a
new better format
We guided our synthesis and selection process based on the following principles:
Never be intrusive. Limiting user’s control by blocking, covering, or otherwise being forceful is out of the question.
If you’re a pleasure to deal with your shortcomings are easier to forgive. When using mobile apps audiences expect gesture-based interaction and smooth UI transitions. An ad has to look and feel as a natural extension of the publisher’s UI.
When you interrupt, instantly provide value or you will be ignored. To do that, advertisers need a big enough ad canvas to showcase beautiful retina screen optimised imagery and its creative interplay with the copy.
I explored possibilities for opt-in interaction and placement within common apps and website types (news, games, utility, etc.) and studies standard image aspect ratios in relation to mobile screen sizes and browser/app viewports to determine minimum and maximum requirements for responsive behaviour of the format.
I designed roughly ten ad experience concepts. We focused our efforts by exploring a few ideas with rapid prototyping, three of which run as pilot campaigns, out of which only one became a GA product: Interscroller.
I wrote It’s Time to Shape the Next Generation of Mobile Display Ads article to support the product launch with its design rationale.
Launch and reception
It debuted on Telegraph.co.uk in October 2014 and was launched in November the same year with Opera Mediaworks, AdTheorent® and Allrecipes as media partners.
"The Interscroller unit is a key component within a powerful trend where mobile ads are continuously adapting to fit native mobile interfaces and experiences to ultimately become more beautiful and memorable.”
— Scott Swanson, President, Global Advertising Sales, Opera Mediaworks
“Celtra's Interscroller ad format helps us deliver an impactful combination of storytelling and branding features, along with a superior user experience."
— Yolandi Oosthuizen, Director of Creative Services, AdTheorent
In 2015 and 2016, several vendors offering scrolling ad formats appeared on the market, including the following:
“Google is bringing new ad types to AMP, including those annoying flying carpet ads.”
— Tech Crunch
A month later an independent consumer research was published stating:
“The ad worked well for all ages, but Millennials showed a particularly strong response to the way the scroller revealed itself, with 44% expressing positive feelings about it (as compared to 31% of those over 35 years old).”
— Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)
In 2017 The Coalition for Better Ads published Better Ads Standards which made Celtra customers worry the format would soon become rejected by industry bodies due to intrusive knock-offs. As a response to market confusion I wrote an article about Why User Experience Keeps Getting Scrolled Over By Ad Tech.
By 2018 more than 400 publishers and networks globally run Celtra Interscroller ads such as: Vice, Bloomerg, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Conde Nast, Mail Online, and other media giants.
Engineering: J. Jančar, K. Slavič, G. Kozak
Product management: G. Lamden, T. Štrok
Data analysis: N. Smith, L. Karelis